(A journey which will always be very special to me for varied reasons. It was fun revisiting the memorable parts of my trip to Darjeeling, about two years back, and penning it down. Hope I did justice to it. I would be presenting the experience of my trip in two separate posts. Here is the first one.)
The commencement of the journey
It was only the second time that I had been inside the Sealdah station in Kolkata. Having travelled all my life from the bustling Howrah station, it took me some time to adjust to the ‘alien’ surroundings here. For me, a railway station in Kolkata simply meant the Howrah station. Thus, adjusting to the look and feel of the Sealdah wasn’t quite easy. Added to it was the fact that the crowd, even at 6 in the evening, was quite moderate. I was waiting for my train, which would take me to New Jalpaiguri (a place near Siliguri in North Bengal). I was accompanied by my friend, who was also my colleague at my workplace, and together we were to take an official trip to the hills of Darjeeling.
The words ‘official trip’ and Darjeeling rarely go together, but fortunately for us, it was true. We were to cover the Darjeeling Zoo for a story I was to write and my friend, as the videographer, was assigned the task of making a short documentary on it. We were to reach Darjeeling the next day; get our work done and leave the day after. Since the day the trip had been approved by our bosses, we had been the objects of much envy at our workplace and which quite frankly, really pleased me to no end.
The last few days had been expectedly quite exciting, as the lead up to any unknown place usually is for me. This was the first time I would be travelling to Darjeeling. I had only heard of its stunning beauty and serenity from my kith and kin. It was rather strange; residing in Bengal I never really got the opportunity to visit Darjeeling before this despite hearing so much about it. However, all of this was about to come to an end as I would finally be reaching Darjeeling the next day. Me and my friend, who like me would be visiting the place for the first time, had excitedly munched down some heavy food from a station restaurant a few minutes ago and were now eagerly awaiting the train’s arrival at the platform.
After some minutes of impatient waiting, where I strolled around the platform innumerable times, we finally saw the train chugging into the platform at around 6.20 pm. There was the usual mad scurry to get into train compartments by the people but before we got suffocated by the crowd, we quickly settled into our seats and patiently waited for the journey to begin.
Ratatat chhahh…Ratatat chhahh… The train sped across the Bengal terrain and brought with it cold and bitter wind. Despite it being only late October, I snuggled under my warm blanket and stared blankly at the train ceiling. It seemed as if I could hear the simultaneous breathing of everyone in the bogie. It was past midnight now and lying down on the upper berth, I found it hard to go to sleep. First there was the tension of my luggage which lay under the lower berth and made me look down every other minute and second there was the anxiety of the trip itself. There was the usual thrill associated with discovering a new place which was so renowned and then there was the nervousness if I would get the task assigned to me done efficiently.
Ratatat chhahh…Ratatat chhahh…
I looked over at my friend, who was sound asleep with his mouth half open. “What must he be dreaming of? Is he as nervous and excited as I am?” I wondered. There were so many things that could have gone wrong in the trip, I suddenly reflected. We could get no hotels, the zoo could be closed, and this train could meet with an accident even as we all slept.
I shuddered and forced myself out of the negative thoughts and concentrated on the ceiling fan above me which made a light buzzing sound. The blades were hardly visible in the darkness and yet I lost myself in its constant revolutions. Ratatat chhahh…Ratatat chhahh… The hum of the wheels now seemed like a cradle and I was finally lulled into sleep.
Arrival at NJP
The vibration of the phone in my pocket woke me up from my slumber. It was the buzzing of my cell phone’s alarm which was set for 6 in the morning. I took out the phone and realizing that it was 6 I muttered a “shit” under my breath. The New Jalpaiguri station was hardly 15 minutes away and the train would halt for just 10 minutes there. We hence didn’t have much time left to get ready. I turned to my friend who was now lying face down and fast asleep, even as his own mobile alarm kept on buzzing repeatedly. I shook him a couple of times, but it seemed that he was determined to sleep till the end of the journey. Not wanting to waste anymore time, I kicked him on his shin. That thankfully worked.
He woke up with a start and frowned at me; as if accusing me of committing a heinous crime. “NJP is hardly 10 minutes away. Get your ass off,” I informed him. He checked his watch and realized the truth in my statement. We got down and immediately set about unlocking our luggage from underneath the seats. It seemed then that all the passengers of the train had woken up now and were excitedly chattering away. Hardly had we brushed our teeth and settled into our seats again that we felt the train slowing down; we were entering the NJP station. I checked my watch: 6.20 am. Right on time!
There was the usual mad rush of the crowd getting out of the train as we got down at the platform. It appeared as if almost more than half of the passengers of the train had emptied at NJP, whose final destination was Guwahati.
We scampered out of the station and began looking for cars outside. A lot of our friends and relatives, who had been to this place, had informed us that we would find innumerable cars and buses outside the station which would be willing to take us to Darjeeling. And sure enough, right outside the station gates we found an array of vehicles, mostly Sumos, clamouring loudly to get our attention. The idea of a two hour bus ride didn’t quite thrill me and hence I was determined to get a Sumo, which was ideal for a tall person like me.
After speaking to a few drivers we finally zeroed in on one who offered a reasonable rate: 200 bucks per person for a two hour journey. The Sumo, which would have 6-7 more passengers apart from the two of us, looked decent and we gave our luggage to a guy who packed it firmly at the top of the car along with that of the others. The journey to Darjeeling would start at 7.30 am which meant we had an hour to while around.
We suddenly realized how hungry we were and hence went about scavenging for some food to eat. With some cakes and biscuits in hands, we sat on a vacant seat outside the station premises. As I waited for the hour to get over I glanced around at the surroundings. New Jalpaiguri didn’t really seem that different from Kolkata, neither the people nor the ambience; except for the fact that there were a lot more tourists here for obvious reasons. NJP is the perfect and the most well-known connector for anyone who wishes to get into Darjeeling.
My friend was lost in his own thoughts as he munched at the biscuits mechanically. I meanwhile looked at the people everywhere who were madly scurrying around to get into vehicles which would take them to the famous hill station. I wondered how many of them would be visiting the place the first time like us. Would they have the same excitement as me? Would they be as nervous as I was? I would never know.
The cool wind slapped my face as I gazed outside the window of the moving car. We had just begun our journey towards Darjeeling and the streets were rapidly getting vacant as we surged ahead. I, along with my friend, was sitting on the front seat with the driver. There was bubbling anticipation in my heart as to what lay ahead.
However, what I hadn’t anticipated was having to face the steep, hilly terrain that the car had to pass through in order to get into Darjeeling. Now, I am one of those people who are quite apprehensive of heights. I have had horrible experiences in my past of riding through some really high mountains and getting scared shit of looking down the ravines. A similar experience awaited me now.
The car, after having left Siliguri, was now entering into what seemed like a never ending hilly roadway. My insides squirmed as I couldn’t help but look down. What didn’t help was that my friend was even worse than I was in handling these steep hills. “God, look at how deep those ravines are,” he said in utter fear. “What if the car skids and we all fall down,” he mumbled again. “I don’t want to die now. I don’t want to die now,” he kept adding after every few seconds. The driver, who by now had sensed our fear, reassured us in his typical North-eastern accent, “Kuss ni hogaa. Saant rakko.” (Nothing will happen. Be calm.) He had apparently made hundreds of trips like this and never ever had had an accident. I had just started feeling a little relaxed when I saw an overturned car lying down in the bushes. I immediately lost all faith in the driver.
And then there was this 50- something ‘uncle’ sitting behind who had been to Darjeeling plentiful times and had never been scared of these hills. “Arre you are so young. What’s to be scared?” he said with a super confident chuckle. “When I was your age, I had easily walked my way up these very mountains once,” he declared pompously and looked on at the other people in the car; waiting for them to probably burst out in applause at his achievement. However, no one it seemed was remotely interested in his remark. While many were fast asleep, the others looked out the window. You will always find these highly annoying ‘uncles’ everywhere; who are know-it-alls and have been there done that. I merely smiled weakly at him and then looked out again. Those gorges just looked so precipitous. I kept having flashes where I was tumbling down with the car in those deep ravines. My head lay crushed by hitting one of the rocks, while a particularly sharp one had gorged through my chest and blood oozed all over my body.
I closed my eyes to stop these horrifying visions and turned away from the window. Lowering my head and closing my eyes, I tried my best to fight the impending sickness which was overflowing in me. “I will not die here,” I silently prayed. “I will die a writer... I will die a writer...”
I breathed in the fresh air standing at the edge of a small cliff overlooking the beautiful town of Mirik. We were in an area called Krishnanagar, which was known as being the entrance to Mirik.
The car had stopped for a few minutes here as the driver needed to get some water for the car. All the inhabitants of the car were now strolling outside the vehicle and stretching their bodies after the hour long journey we had made thus far. My friend, like me, was standing beside me and was stunned at the sight which lay in front of us. This was unlike anything I had ever seen in Bengal. The pine-clad hillsides made for such an extraordinary view that all my sickness from a few minutes ago seemed to have vanished. The fragrance of the fresh grass had rejuvenated me and I was now eagerly looking forward to what lay ahead for us.
It was at this point I realized how different this place was from Kolkata. Be it the structure of people’s homes or their looks. While most of the cottages and huts were similarly shaped and looked quite clean, the people bore the distinctive North-eastern looks.
As I turned, I suddenly caught a little girl staring at me from the window of her small hut which stood nearby. She looked like one of those cute characters in the Japanese anime films, and was probably fascinated by the tall ‘alien’ creature standing in front of her house. I smiled at her. The girl seemed unsure on how to react for a few seconds and then finally smiled back.
“All right, get into the car everyone,” hollered the driver all of a sudden and brought me back to reality. We quickly settled into our seats and prepared for the final leg of the journey. As I slammed the car door shut, I looked back at the window of the hut. The girl was gone.
I had always seen tea-plantation workers in pictures and documentaries. Hence, it was quite a sight to see a group of these workers going about their business casually, as our car passed through a tea-plantation site. Clad in their characteristic dress; the scarves neatly tied over their head and baskets hanging from their backs, they worked in a very orderly manner without even bothering to glance at us. I however, wanted to sit and observe them some more, but was denied that opportunity as we had to move towards our destination.
After riding for another half an hour through the hilly terrain, we entered what seemed like another small yet lovely looking town. The driver informed us that this was Ghoom, a tiny locality in the Darjeeling Himalayan hill region, which was famous for its scenic beauty. The road we were passing through was the Hill Cart Road, which was the common route taken by cars and buses travelling from Siliguri to Darjeeling. For some reason, I noted, the road was glistening with moist water and the air was misty. The driver cleared my confusion when he said, “It has been raining since the last few days in this part of the hills.”
In the little time I got to observe the area, I noticed that it was bubbling with life. People were busy chatting, shopping for vegetables and doing other stuff. I then noticed that there was quite a crowd outside a store selling woolen garments. I was quite tempted to join them and try out some of the fancy looking jackets they were selling, but had to curb my feelings.
Some of the people in the car then informed us that Darjeeling is hardly 6 kms away now. Feeling elated at the news, I tried to look beyond the marketplace we were passing through. I could see mountains, resplendent in verdant grass, in the background. My heart pounded in excitement at the prospect of what awaited me ahead.
Entering the Queen of hills
There was a real chill in the air as we noticed our surroundings changing slowly. The rain over the last few days coupled with the place’s general location, resulted in bitterly cold winds smothering our faces. Even inhaling the cold air was causing me much discomfort, but I faced it all quite happily. The car turned over another bend in the road and then I finally saw it.
There it was; the ‘Queen of Hills’ as it is renowned for. The hills of Darjeeling looked so picturesquely perfect that I felt like floating around those mountains and remain there for my entire life. White, fluffy clouds hovered around the hills which were covered with lush green trees. For a second it seemed time had come to an absolute standstill as everyone in the car feasted their eyes on the stunning beauty in front of them. All my friend could mutter was a “Wow” as he admired the surroundings with wide-eyes. It was a scene straight out of a romantic song from a Bollywood movie. It was something which would turn dull people into romantics. I for one, wanted to write some poetic lines which would do justice to the scene ahead of me. Unfortunately though, I wasn’t particularly good in that department and chose instead to relish the spectacular landscape.
Beyond the hills we could now clearly see the city of Darjeeling towards which we were heading. The myriad buildings of different colours and shapes slowly started to grow bigger with each passing minute as we hurtled closer to the city.
Finally, the hilly pathway now gave way to normal city roads and I knew that we had arrived at our destination. As if just to approve of my thoughts, a Toy Train, the celebrated symbol of Darjeeling, slowly whistled by at a little distance from us. My heart gladdened with joy and I desperately yearned to get a seat in that train. However, now was not the time for that.
A few minutes later, in which I had managed to catch a glimpse of the local market and a mall, the car stopped at what was apparently the main city junction. I got down from the car and stretched my long legs. We were surrounded by hotels, small restaurants and guest houses. I wanted to explore some more and look at what lay beyond those small lanes leading ahead. But my friend then thumped me on my back and said, “Let’s get going. We have a long day ahead.”
Indeed. We had a long day lying ahead of us. As we walked towards a hotel, I checked my watch; it was 9.30 am. I found it a little hard to believe that only two hours had passed since the time we had boarded the Sumo from NJP. It really seemed like several hours had passed in between the various happenings of the journey.
Something however told me that the adventure had just begun.
To be concluded
(To read the second and final part of this post, click here.)